One of my life’s great joys has been to meet, work with and befriend other single women. Each one has a unique story, an exciting calling, and most have a strong sense of purpose. Unfortunately, so many of these women also experience pain, frustration and a gamut of other emotions related to the treatment they receive as single people. I’ve observed through years of membership and leadership in the church that Christian singles often feel isolated and excluded from full participation in Christian communities and the church. With this post, I hope to raise awareness about this issue in the church, but I want to be very clear that I will not exaggerate or to paint a bleak picture just to gain your sympathy. The stories that I will share are the unvarnished experiences of real people.
Feelings of exclusion, isolation, a sense of being misunderstood or being a second-class citizen are common complaints of single Christian women. The pain born out of our experiences is very real and it affects all areas of our lives: our friendships, relationships with family members, our emotional health and our relationship with God. I think it is vitally important that our voices are heard by our married sisters and brothers so we can be first understood and then recognized and embraced as full citizens among the people of God.
To illustrate to you the challenges of being a single woman in the church, I recently sent out a bunch of emails asking my single friends a series of questions. Many felt the questions were so important that they forwarded them on to even more singles until my inbox was flooded. For more than a week I have been sifting through responses that made my jaw drop, made me laugh and some that made me cry. One of the tear-jerkers came from my friend Angelina. She told me she was only able to answer the first three questions before she needed to take a “breather.” She wrote,
“Strangely, as I found myself answering your questions last night, I got really upset. I’ve been thinking about it a lot today and haven’t worked up the nerve to finish all of the [replies]. It’s amazing thinking through this…It’s almost as if I’ve been angry at God and the church for the fact that I am still single and feel friend-less.”
A year and a half ago, Angelina moved to Maryland to start a new job. She wrote of her attempts to plug into a great church in her area. Wanting to make friends and to serve, Angelina looked into several Sunday school classes and programs. She discovered that though her church had a large population of young adults, all of the classes and fellowship groups were formed according to marital status. The singles ministry consisted of “lovely older women who had recently lost a spouse or who were divorced.” The only other group for young adults was the college ministry. Angelina is mid-twenties, thriving in her career as an art teacher. Her life is full of good things but it was clear from her email that she feels lonely and disconnected.
Another friend started her email to me like this: “Thanks for tackling this topic, Corrie. I find that I get too angry to discuss [singleness] in a logical and helpful way. I always feel like I get put on the defensive.” This friend wished to remain anonymous because she feared she would come across as a “bitter, defensive old hag.” In reality this woman, who we will call Jane, is an up-beat, kind, intelligent and attractive woman in her thirties. She knows several languages, has traveled, earned a Masters degree and lives a self-described “crazy cool life.” Many people envy the things she has done, but Jane still struggles to reconcile the gift of her life with the frustration she feels as a single adult in the church. Jane feels bombarded by both overt and subtle messages that say she doesn’t quite belong or that there is something wrong with her.
Jane attends a large church in North Carolina and she went to a meeting for people looking to join a small group. Arriving early, she waited outside the room and overheard the small group leaders talking. One leader said to the group, “We can’t take any more single women. We’re maxed out.” The leaders began to debate what to do with all the single women. Another time Jane was talking with an older married woman at church. When the woman found out that Jane was single, she exclaimed, “But you’re not ugly!” At one point, Jane heard a pastor say being married was the highest calling in life. Offhanded remarks like these cause Jane to grapple with contentment in her singleness and her sense of self-worth.
“[I struggle with the idea that I have to fix] what makes me unattractive. I catch myself buying into the crap that says that there’s something wrong with me, that I’m damaged goods. I’m talking about things from losing weight, to changing my personality and downplaying my intellect.”
Jane is not the only one hearing messages that assume singleness is something to be fixed, or that is it a less valuable life-experience when compared to marriage. Most of the women who emailed me shared at least one experience that made them feel devalued as a single person. All but one of my responders said that they feel the church values marriage over singleness. My friend and former co-worker Amber articulates the problem well.
“I don’t think the church sat down and decided that single people do not matter as much, it’s just that there is very little that the church does to show single people that they do matter. Most programs, sermon examples, and events center around marriage, family or children’s programs. Sometimes there are women’s groups but the topics discussed are mostly about being a wife and/or mother… I just want the church to acknowledge that there are single people who are present. I just want others to consider their audience and also consider that we’re not all just waiting around to find Mr. or Mrs. Right.”
For Amber, nothing illustrates this point as well as an experience she had at small group. The discussion topic was ‘experiencing the love of God’ and the leader asked the group members to reflect on what it felt like when they first met their spouses. She taught that we experience God’s love like spousal love because Jesus is the bridegroom of the church. A divorced woman in the group spoke up and said that if marriage was the way we experience the love of God, then she would never be able to fully experience Jesus’ love for her. Amber, a woman of confidence and authentic faith, writes in response to this experience:
“I know that I can experience Jesus in the same way as a married person can, but when you hear so much [about how good marriage is] and nothing that confirms that your place in life is good too, it starts to make you wonder. I was so frustrated that the leader of my group didn’t think about her audience and that [she used an example that only married people could relate to]. There is no better way to isolate someone.”
Many of the women who wrote to me testified to hearing sermons that elevated marriage to the ultimate human experience. I’ve heard the same said of married sex. Whether it is the yearly sermon series on marriage not balanced with discussions on singleness, or sermons in which the pastor often uses his (or her) marriage as a relational example, it seems that single people are perceiving that their life is less – less desirable or less spiritual. With the programmatic structure of the church offering so much to married members but little to nurture single congregants, other than in segregated groups, there is little to dispel this perception.
Mature Christian singles understand that God loves us each completely, even in our singleness, but many of us are still hurting because this belief is not well preached, programmed or actualized in our Christian communities. Like married people, like all humans, single people need to be known, to be valued and to be accepted. We want to be appreciated as we are and encouraged and equipped for ministry in the church and the world right now, not if or when we get married.
If you’re like me, you’re feeling a little down at the end of this post. (Believe me, you’d feel even more so if you read all of the testimonies that I received.) Maybe you are experiencing surprise, angst, or even denial. It is hard to hear that the church falls short in any respect, especially if you love the church and you’ve had a positive experience. I hope that somewhere in the midst of your emotions you feel compassion too and that you want to know what you can do make the church a more welcoming place. That’s where we’ll head soon. We still have lots of questions to explore related to singleness and faith. How can churches be more inclusive and more nurturing of single adults? What are the joys of being single and is it a calling more should consider? Theologically speaking, is marriage better than being single? More explorations are coming soon.